Essie Huxley and Me
Essie Huxley gardened on rock. Every grain of soil was hard-won from composting ANYTHING that came her way, including marauding possums and wandering wallabies. She lived on a high ridge at a place called Camp Hill near Lower Longley, south of Hobart all her life. She was 5 foot nothing, always wore a hat, and was generous and direct if she liked you. She had many friends; they and her plants were her family.
She gardened nearly all of her long life, I think she was 92 when she died, and the last words she said to me were, "I'm not going to get that telegram from the Queen". I can speculate that she was brought to gardening by tragedy because at 18 she developed alopecia, all her hair fell out never to return. She locked herself in the house for a year, learnt handicrafts and hoped .... but to no avail. Gardening became her solice, her balm, and gradually her life, but later she blossomed into a bit of a garden celebrity and was feted everywhere she went.
She got to enjoy the limelight, dressed up to "the nines" and wore a very extravagant wig. But she never lost her common touch, her straightforward approach and her openess. Her philosophy, "I treat people as I find them and will do until they otherwise change". I must have been one she was suspicious about because when I turned up at thirty with dyed blond hair and an earring, she waited one long year before she invited me into her home, despite many circumnavigations of her garden, accompanied by the chant of Latin names of her plants, which were delivered like a sermon. Sometimes she'd forget one, and stared into the middle distance, as if she was waiting for it to drop like a miracle from the sky. I never interrupted because once when I did, she narrowed me with her gaze and called me "a smart alec". I was suitably chastened. We became good friends and we shared much. She never drove, so I chauffeured her here and there, but she never took it for granted, and despite my protestations, she always managed to slip money in a pocket or turn up with a book, or a plant that I would have died for.
She was not impressed when I "nicked" the State library's only copy of Brian Mathew's, The Crocus, to use as as field guide on my first trip to Greece. I put it back when I returned to my day job there, but not before almost losing it near Omolos in Crete. But that's another story ... . She never said much, but it was what she didn't say that counted. Before the next trip I was summoned and presented with a mint condition copy. She said, "I don't want you running around the place with someone else's things. It's the same as stealing". A good Methodist upbringing coming to the fore. Then an ever so slight crease of a smile. "Lets go in and put the kettle on and I'll sign the blooming thing. Don't want you losing this one".
My best memories of her are from her garden, just me and her, kneeling over some little treasure, taking in it, and maybe not a word between us. There were the epics, the searches out the back of Scotts Peak for a pure yellow Xmas Bell, Blandfordia punicea, where we walked on a cloud of lemon-scented air, and into the Hartz Mountains, through milky spires of Mountain rocket, to show me where to find Milligania densifolia and how to collect its seed. Clever woman knew that every last stick went into the hungry maws of the roos and the only place we'd find it was where it trailed just above the water, the old roo didn't like getting wet!
When she got older, she'd still come with me but she couldn't walk it, she'd sit patiently in my car, reading, or "jawing" some hapless passerby. I was sent out with maps drawn on scraps of paper and shonky directions to do the doings. Trowels were pressed into my palms, if I resisted, I'd get that steely gaze. She was a "digger". She "sooled" me up the broken ridges along Mt Anne, up the sharp pins of Mt Sprent, I was her eyes and her legs, but I saw them in all their glorious, wild abundance, Geum talboltianum, with its great wide bowls of snowy white, the strange, otherworldly maroon stars of Isophysis tasmanica, and that moonscape ridge above the tarn "grazed" by those vegetable sheep.
It's the time now, they're at the peak, and she'd be up there! And we wouldn't need to speak.
The image of Essie Huxley on her 90th birthday was kindly lent to me by Lesley Crowden and the Crowden family of Kaydale Lodge at Niietta. They too were great friends of hers.